Countless advertisements from the mid-20th century promoted moving to the suburbs. Posters and magazine layouts declared the value of “home, garden, and sunshine” and the prospect of homeownership. Children are depicted running around, enjoying the spirit of youth in their home’s lawn. These adverts are often what comes to mind when one envisions the American dream and the pursuit of happiness: building a successful, abundant life with a family, a car, and a house. Examining patterns of movement among the American population, it seems that these ad campaigns were successful.
Since 2010, the majority of Americans have lived in the suburbs. As city populations continue to decline, this fact will become ever more true. However, American suburbs aren’t like the suburbs of other nations—or, indeed, like traditionally-developed communities in America. For many, the suburbs—with their single family homes, lawns, and sprawl—are still emblematic of the American dream. But today, they have turned into an American nightmare. The suburbs are far from idyllic; they are fraught with fundamental issues that have consequences for the planet, the economy, and the health and well-being of their residents.
For this article’s purposes, “suburbs” or “suburbia” are defined as the form of suburban development that emerged in the mid-twentieth century. This definition does not include “traditional,” higher-density suburban communities or recent, transit-oriented suburban development as seen in Bordentown, New Jersey or Rosslyn, Virginia, respectively. Instead, think of driveways, single-family homes, exclusionary zoning, strip malls, cul-de-sacs, gated communities, and the like—phenomena so ubiquitous that many will probably think of their own hometown. These North American suburbs emerged during the post-World War II economic boom, a time of great automobile industry expansion. Subsequently, American suburbia is uniquely dependent on the car—perhaps its most recognizable feature. The post-WWII automobile boom provided quick access to the city for those living outside of it, and the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act encouraged even more automobile use, connecting suburbs directly to city centers by building highways right through them—often at the expense of Black, nonwhite, and poor communities.
Suburbs also cut into communities of color beyond the highway. The development and growth of these suburbs trace their founding to “white flight”, as white, middle-class Americans left cities during desegregation to create all-white, affluent neighborhoods. For instance, Providence’s population fell from its peak of 253,504 in 1940 to just 179,213 in 1970, driven by a flight to the suburbs. This decline of 73,000 is second only to Detroit—the poster child for white flight. This dramatic drop in population drained cities of their tax base, leaving funding short for education, public safety, sanitation, and beautification. Spending cuts in these areas exacerbated the conditions of poverty faced by low-income (and primarily POC) communities in the city, leading to increases in crime and substance abuse. These worsening conditions further hastened flight from the city, creating a feedback loop with disastrous consequences for communities of color.
Today, however, highways and suburban car dependence have implications for the entire planet. Gas-powered cars are huge greenhouse gas emitters, and with 85 percent of American workers depending on cars for their daily commute, it is easy to see how transportation accounts for 28 percent of US carbon emissions (57 percent of those vehicles being classified as “light-duty vehicles”). Reducing car-dependent transport across America could help avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but those living in suburbia often don’t have reliable alternatives to choose from. Mediocre (and at worst, dangerous) pedestrian infrastructure paired with anemic public transportation (the origins of which are covered in fellow BPR staff writer Sofie Zeruto’s article, “The Land of Spaghetti Junctions”) make cars a necessity for suburbanites, stripping them of the freedom of choice for their mode of transport and shackling them with their many costs.
The financial demands of car-centric sprawl don’t end with car payments, insurance, maintenance, and gasoline. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns compares suburban growth to a Ponzi scheme, an operation that requires “ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.” To summarize his argument, many suburban developments are built using funds that primarily come from state and federal governments. This encourages cities to further develop their suburbs, as it comes at a cheap initial cost to them. When maintenance costs on suburban infrastructure creep up, cities embark on more development to provide funds. Unfortunately for cities, the zoning, parking, and setback laws have created a type of development that will never provide enough tax revenue for maintenance.
The fact of the matter is that American suburbs cannot sustain themselves. This perpetual insolvency has led to many inner cities effectively subsidizing the suburbs. A study conducted by the Halifax Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia, Canada, found that car-centric suburban sprawl, on average, cost cities 244 percent more than medium-density urban developments. This diverts tax revenue for schools, public transportation, and other necessities in city centers to repairing the infrastructure of the suburbs. This phenomenon happens on a smaller scale, too: in the posh suburban town of Edina, Minnesota, tax revenue from a small number of apartment buildings serves as a crucial budgetary backbone to subsidize suburban single-family homeowners. Even city subsidization is often not enough, as the aforementioned loss of tax base spreads their budget thin. In extreme cases like Detroit, a city can go bankrupt due to historic white flight. It’s hard to ignore how this financial setup plays into the racist history of suburbia. Given the suburbs’ growth as a result of white flight (and many poorer inner cities being inhabited by communities of color), one can’t help but notice what seems like an unfair transfer of wealth.
If communities are suffering in the cities, then they have gone to die in the suburbs. One common thread among critiques of suburbia is how isolating they can be. One urban planner listed off several causes of modern social isolation: Most destinations are outside of walking distance, neighborhoods aren’t designed for interaction, and planning prioritizes the car over the person. All of these are typical of suburbia. Large swathes of single-family exclusive zoning precludes the existence of destinations—coffee shops, grocery stores, work, and recreation—from existing within the suburbs. Set-back homes and driveways create a metaphorical moat around single-family homes. Both of these also emphasize and encourage—if not implicitly mandate—the use of automobiles. These drivers of isolation have dire consequences on mental health, with loneliness being described by some researchers as an “epidemic.” Recent research supports the idea that greater social interaction can extend one’s lifespan; thus, these issues may cut it short.
Human drivers have additional health risks. A 2004 study found that those living in car-dependent suburbs had an increased risk of obesity due to a lack of physical activity. This lower level of physical activity than in urban areas had additional implications of high blood pressure and arthritis, suggesting that the cause was the constant driving and lack of pedestrian infrastructure inherent to many North American suburbs. A large-scale, four-year examination of similar suburbs in the UK published in 2017 found greater evidence for this link, showing improving health outcomes in denser suburbs and cities. Aside from the lack of physical activity, long commutes can be a burden on families, disrupting things as fundamental as a developing child’s sleep schedule.
Not only is the modern American suburb’s history rooted in racism, but its problems extend to today. Its car dependence is a major challenge for stopping climate change as it forces car use on its residents. Its financial insolvency makes it eerily similar to a Ponzi scheme and relies on inner city tax revenue to stay afloat. Isolation runs amok in suburban communities. And yet, suburbia, with all its problems, continues to grow; during the pandemic, Americans fled cities for the suburbs in record numbers, sending demand for single-family homes skyrocketing. In the wake of this, we must ask ourselves: How much more suburbanization can our wallets, cities, and communities take?